Is It Dementia or Something Else?

While dementia is most commonly thought of in relation to Alzheimer's disease, it can also be caused by a number of other medical circumstances.

Dementia is a degenerative condition, which means that it continues to worsen over time. The exact symptoms of dementia vary depending on the cause of the condition; however, loss of memory is commonly the first and most obvious sign to appear. Other common signals of dementia include changes in personality and the inability to recognize loved ones.

Unlike dementia, pseudo-dementia is not a permanent condition. Pseudo-dementia is a type of depression that is often brought about by a pre-existing psychiatric illness or life change. Most often this form of depression is experienced in the elderly and is brought on by loss, retirement or feelings related to growing older. 

Pseudo-dementia is often characterized by a sudden onset and can be of relatively short duration. Patients with pseudo-dementia appear to have memory deficits similar to those of dementia patients. However, difficulty in recalling information among those suffering from pseudo-dementia is often caused by a lack attention to ones surroundings. Furthermore, patients  are usually well aware of their memory problems, whereas those afflicted with dementia are often unable to realize what they have forgotten.

Often, memory testing is required to differentiate between dementia and pseudo-dementia. When confronted with questions for which they do not recall answers, pseudo-dementia patients will typically answer, "I don't know." Dementia patients on the other hand, will simply answer incorrectly, usually without realizing that the answer is wrong. Additionally, people suffering from pseudo-dementia will typically become upset or frustrated by their inability to recall information. Conversely, dementia patients tend to appear unconcerned or indifferent to their memory problems. The Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS) is frequently a useful tool for distinguishing between dementia and pseudo-dementia.

The cognitive symptoms of pseudo-dementia can generally be eliminated by successfully treating the underlying depression. Most patients will respond to an antidepressant, which will elevate symptoms and restore functioning. The most common forms of psychotherapy used to treat depression in patients with pseudo-dementia are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal Therapy (IPT).

Tips for helping loved ones suffering from pseudo-dementia:

  • Don't panic or try to diagnose your love one yourself. There could be many reasons for behavioral changes. Seek the help of a qualified professional before you label your loved one.
  • Be sure to find a therapist and/or medical professional who has experience treating patients with both disorders.
  • Know that a diagnosis of either disorder is not necessarily negative. There are many treatments that can assist with dementia and depression that can help elevate symptoms and restore functioning.
  • Be prepared that it may take a while to get an appointment with a qualified specialist.